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Thursday, 9 May 2002

The day Satan sat in at cards and a severed hand went for a walk around a Dorset village

Dirty deeds and dark devilment

Thunder rumbles overhead and I almost drop my notebook. The sky has turned an eerie shade of grey and it’s starting to rain hard.

Now I’m not a big storm fan under any circumstances and sitting in a graveyard talking about ghosts and witchcraft is the last place I want to be when lightning strikes.

The two people sitting with me don’t seem bothered though; they joke about how atmospheric this is.

Only a few moments ago we had been talking about a severed hand that was buried in this very churchyard in Pimperne near Blandford.

In December 1780, they tell me, there was violent confrontation between a gang of poachers and some gamekeepers at Chettle Down in North Dorset, during which one of the poachers had a hand shot off.

He fled to London and the hand was buried in St Peter’s cemetery.

But since his death it is said lanes around the village have been haunted by the bloody hand, crawling along the ground trying to find the arm it once belonged too. This is one of seemingly endless tales and supernatural snippets in Robert Newland and Mark North’s newly-published book Dark Dorset. The authors, who both live in the county, have known each other since they were children and live next door to each other.

They started working on the collection of mysterious stories in 1998 and have done all the illustrations themselves.

Just a glance at the index shows even Dorset’s most pretty and tranquil villages are associated with dark tales.

Some have been told before, some have been resurrected from books now out of print and others are new, including some Mark’s grandparents used to tell him when he was a child.

They wanted to log as many legends as possible passed down through families and communities before story-telling becomes a thing of the past.

“We have recorded stories that might get lost in future generations. People don’t tell tales now,” said Mark. “Some of the stories are not very pleasant. People seem to enjoy those more.”

One chapter tells the tale of Murderers Lane in West Dorset. It was so named after two men murdered a farmer there in a bungled robbery in 1694.

They were sentenced to be gibbeted alive in the place they committed the terrible crime. They were clamped in iron cages, hung from a tree and left for the crows.

They were there for many months until the birds had picked off every last piece of rotting flesh. The ghost of the farmer has been seen haunting the lane.

As recently as 1949 a woman told how, as a terrified child, her father - told her to stand aside as the farmer’s ghostly horse and cart went past.

The book also tells of how in 1970 archaeology students camped at Badbury Rings – claimed to be the site of a great battle where the legendary King Arthur killed at least 160 men single-handed — heard marching, the sound of metal clashing and shouting in a language they did not understand.

And how children said they were visited by a horse-like devil in Poole and young men fled a barn near Shaftesbury after realising that a mysterious gentleman who asked to join in their secret card game was in fact the Devil.

The book, published by Oakmagic Publications, includes reports of strange weather phenomena in the Bournemouth and Poole area and tales of fairies, mermaids and big cat sightings.

Research included compiling information from articles in local newspapers, including the Daily Echo

Mark said Dorset’s dark side was very under-rated.

Thumbing through the paperback book, Robert added: “Some people, perhaps for some reason, don’t seem to push it.

“But Dorset does have plenty of folklore that’s not well known”

They say some legends were embroidered to keep people away from where they were not wanted - a convenient tool for those involved in the illegal smuggling trade in years gone by.

But when a storm is brewing, the skies get dark and wind screams, through the quiet country lanes of Dorset, who can be sure?

Dark Dorset is priced at £12.95 and can be ordered via the internet at www.oakmagicpublications.com. The ISBN Number is 1 904330 002

Dark Dorset: Cabinet of Curiosities, featuring props, models, pictures and information on the legends and folkore featured in the book, will be on display at the Dorchester Library from Monday, July 15, to Saturday, July 27.

More details are available on their website at www.darkdorset.co.uk

Review by Melanie Warman, Bournemouth Daily Echo, 9th May 2002

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